Covering Trauma: Being the not-so-typical first responder

We focused on column writing the last few class periods of this semester. While I have never written a column, the process felt cathartic. It was a structured version of the writing I often do for myself, which is often narrative, poetry and creative work in one of over 40 filled notebooks. Our assignment was to write a column about the end of the semester, and I was drawn to writing about my experiences doing breaking news reporting this year.

A photo I took at the March to the Polls event, Oct. 31, 2020.

I remember it clearly. I was standing in the middle of the road, taking pictures of a mass of people kneeling for nine minutes in honor of George Floyd, a Black man who was murdered by a police officer just six months prior. I vaguely heard one shout to disperse. I barely saw the police officer who yelled. But I felt the pepper spray hit my throat.

I was one of many on October 31, 2020 in downtown Graham. Hundreds of people came to a march to the polls event that day, starting in a church parking lot and ending up at the Confederate monument, in front of the Alamance County courthouse. A handful of reporters stood by, cameras ready, to document someone’s first time voting, or maybe catch a glimpse of a proud citizen exercising their right to vote in the tumultuous election. 

But that day, like many others in 2020, journalists instead were witness to violence and brutality. In journalism classes, professors often remind you that journalism is the first draft of history, and on October 31, we really were. From documenting protests and the ongoing impacts of the pandemic to writing about school shootings and a 24/7 government, journalists have been stretched to their limits trying to keep up in a fast paced and often dangerous world.

While only 50 journalists were killed worldwide in the year 2020 according to Reporters Without Borders, a decrease from an all time high of 147 in 2012, the number of journalists killed has been steady since 2019, and the amount of trust people have in media has only increased by 2% since 2019, according to Edelman. 

The impact of the traumatic events journalists cover are akin to the experience first responders have, and that is not a coincidence. Journalists often arrive with police, firefighters and medical workers when they show up on the scene. Tammy McCoy, a former journalist who now works as a clinical psychologist providing counseling to first responders, sees the toll covering traumatic event after traumatic event takes on journalists, particularly journalists of color.

“Hearing about or bearing witness to other people’s trauma can be traumatic or stressful, and creates problems for the journalist,” McCoy said. “If you’re not taking good care of yourself, and all you’re doing is working, you’re really not doing a good job of tending to your own wellbeing. You’re making yourself vulnerable to all the after effects, and that’s not healthy.”

Post traumatic stress disorder for some is a side effect of something they had no control over, a situation they did not choose to be in or had no decision regarding. But for journalists in the field, the decision is entirely our own. We choose each and every day to continue to put ourselves in harm’s way. Sitting with this decision is difficult, knowing that the nights I toss and turn and wake up drenched in sweat from a nightmare are from choices I purposely made.

Since October, I have covered countless protests and demonstrations in Graham. I always say to myself, “this will be the last time. I won’t go back after this.” But each time something happens, I am there, with a camera, a pencil and a sick feeling in my gut. I can’t even listen to the recording from that day any more. I hear myself say “oh my God” in a horrified, shocked voice and the feelings I had then flood my body. I remember thinking that I didn’t call my parents that day. I texted my best friend “pepper sprayed,” before calling and asking him to come down to the courthouse, just in case.

But I keep coming back. All of us do. Call it crazy or a moral obligation, but we keep coming back to protests and covering the death toll of the pandemic. We keep telling stories because, in all honesty, there is nothing else we can do. But the events of the last year have made it clear: in order to continue reporting on traumatic, dangerous events and providing a valuable service to our communities, we need to realize the challenge in such a responsibility.